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BWW Interviews: WEST SIDE STORY Comes to DPAC in June - The Creative Process with Joey McKneely

BWW: What are the challenges of choreographing those types of scenes so that you are true to the music and the choreography but don't give over to a place that looks choreographed and doesn't look like authentic violence?

JM:  Well, I think that was one of Arthur Laurents's major objections was really trying to sandpaper those edges.  And I think always it's about character.  Again, that's what so remarkable about Mr. Robbins' choreography, is that it always comes from character first.  And, the character, if you feel the correct emotions, and have the correct action that you're going for, that your movement will become very specific, and it will not look like a dancer's move, although it is.  But it feels like a character move that only that character in that moment in time would do that.

BWW: Since the national tour plays a lot bigger houses, were there any tweaks made to the show to accommodate larger houses or is it pretty much the same as it was at the Palace?

JM: It's pretty much the same.  I think that gets very dicey, because when you travel with a tour, you play small, medium, and large houses.  So, to try to curtail the show for each venue becomes almost a nightmare, so we just stay true to the show, I believe in always comes across strongly.

BWW: Here in Durham, we have an almost 3,000-seat theater, so the people in back row will still feel it?

JM: Wow. Because West Side is so powerful to begin with, I think it's one of those shows that play to very big houses because the visuals are so arresting and the voices really carry across.  And the emotion, the storytelling is just so dramatic, so I believe it will reach.  I don't know, [laughter] I've never seen it in a 3,000 seat house, so I'm not quite sure.

BWW:  Well, we'll have to find out.  What's your favorite moment in the show?

JM: Oh, wow, I have so many, I really do.  I think because I danced the show in Jerome Robbins' [Broadway], there's so many choreographic moments that are, that I did personally, that are very close to me.  It's always hard – I think the ballet is one of my favorite moments, and of course Cool and America always are top of this.

BWW: Well, America's my favorite, so…

JM: It's hard, you know, like ask a mother to pick her favorite child.  I give so much to each and every dance.  Dance at the gym, oh my God, it's like how do you… I think that's what makes West Side so fantastic, because everyone has favorites.

BWW: How did actually knowing Jerome Robbins and working with him influence your recreating his work?

JM: Primarily, I think his understanding of holding onto the integrity of the choreography.  I worked first with him for a total of six months, so I really watched his process, and we did all of his different styles.  It was really [about] understanding where his choreography comes from, and it comes from character.  It's very specific and there's no gray area.  To hold on to that integrity, and also to push the dancers beyond their capability because that's what West Side does.

BWW: Lastly, why is it important that this generation of theatergoers see this West Side Story?

JM: I truly believe that West Side Story is the benchmark of American musical theater.  It's when it changed, when it became modern.  I believe every generation needs to experience the power of what a musical can do in social terms and the storytelling; it can reveal as a mirror to society.  What's so remarkable about West Side Story is it really hold up a mirror to society and what makes it so timeless is even if it was done in 1957, we still are facing the same sort of problems and issues today, and it's 2012 now.  We will still be facing these same issues in 20 more years, 25 more years.  Maybe one day we won't, but that's human civilization, and I believe we always will.  So, I think that's what's wonderful for the audience to feel the power of what a musical can accomplish.

West Side Story opens at the Durham Performing Arts Center on June 5 and runs through June 10. For tickets and more information, visit www.dpacnc.com.

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Larisa Mount Larisa has been a Broadway fan since before she can remember. When she's not teaching kindergarten, she's seeing every show possible! Her three favorite shows are Hair, Spring Awakening, and In the Heights.

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